Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Weakland Memoirs


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


In A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop [Eerdmans], Archbishop Rembert Weakland, O.S.B., offers an account of, and an apologia for, his dramatic life. One reader, a prominent scholar and convert who lives in a very different pew than Weakland’s, so to speak, nonetheless told me that the Benedictine prelate’s memoir was a fascinating education in the theological, political, and personal dynamics that filled the post-Vatican II Church in America with internecine strife — the results of which are much with us today. The question is whether Archbishop Weakland’s account of that period is fully accurate.

The archbishop is at pains to defend the U.S. bishops’ conference in the late 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, prior to what he deems a kind of papal Thermidor — a turning back from reform (or, as some might say, revolution) — engineered by Pope John Paul II. John Paul, Weakland suggests, had little use for national bishops’ conferences. This seems an odd assertion, however, for prior to his papal service, Karol Wojtyla had spent twenty years as part of one of the world’s most effective episcopal conferences: the Polish bishops’ conference, which lacked the elaborate bureaucratic apparatus of its American counterpart but effectively re-catechized Poland under communism, building the moral and cultural foundations for the Solidarity movement. Moreover, anyone familiar with John Paul’s instinctive reaction when presented with a problem by a bishop — “Have you discussed this with the conference? What can the conference do to help?” — will be further suspicious of the claim that the late pope had no use for episcopal conferences.

Archbishop Weakland’s memoir draws an unfavorable contrast between his own archdiocesan synod in Milwaukee in 1987 and the “appearance of dialogue” during John Paul’s visit to the United States that same year. In light of that contrast, it is worth remembering that the faux-dialogue structure of that papal visit — some putative representative from one or another Catholic interest group would address the Pope; John Paul would respond — was proposed by the U.S. bishops’ conference itself, which seemed to think that the Pope had been too didactic in his previous visit to the United States (that being the 1979 pilgrimage that led to the famous Time cover story, “John Paul Superstar”). The 1987 format was indeed clumsy; but that was not John Paul II’s fault.

As for the preparation of the U.S. bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter on the economy, which the archbishop also holds up as a model of “dialogue,” at least no small part of the “dialogue” in the months preceding “Economic Justice for All” was generated by a Lay Commission that formed itself outside the bishops’ conference structure under the leadership of former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon. It is true that the drafting committee for the bishops’ economics pastoral, which Weakland chaired, invited a reasonably broad range of formal witnesses to testify. But then so did the committee drafting the 1983 peace pastoral — and in both cases, the result of the process was, if not preordained, then at least prefigured in the assumptions then regnant in the relevant staff offices at the bishops’ conference.

Weakland argues that “Dearden bishops” — meaning those conventionally described as “liberals” after Vatican II — were more interested in “collegial sharing in ministry” than the bishops appointed by John Paul II. That may be true in some cases, but those of us with memories of the period remember that liberal autocracy (episcopal or bureaucratic) was at least as large a factor in Catholic life as “collegial sharing in ministry.” Moreover, the archbishop’s depiction of himself as a promoter of episcopal collegiality is not altogether easy to square with his brutal criticism of New York Cardinal John J. O’Connor in the course of a glowing Weakland profile in the New Yorker.

As he concedes, Archbishop Weakland’s faction lost many of the battles over Catholic identity and practice from the mid-1980s on. But was that all politics? Or did it have something to do with the evangelical vitality of the vision and experience of Church embodied by John Paul II?

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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